latest novel, Savage Night follows
two maladjusted Edinburgh families on
unstoppable cycle of revenge so violent – and yet so natural
– that it amounts
to a kind of fucked-up genius. Fans take note: the book marks the
far of Guthrie’s multiple narrative technique. Newcomers
should read it under
medical supervision; easy on the nerves it is not. I caught up with
who also goes by the sobriquet of ‘Sunshine’
– to plumb the depths of his
Seaman: How would you
sum up Savage Night in one sentence?
Allan Guthrie: Ah, I always wondered
if reading Henry James might come in useful one day. And here we are,
One convoluted cheat of a sentence describing Savage
Night coming up.
Savage Night, which follows two
Edinburgh families – the Parks,
spearheaded by Andy, a blithe psychopathic fireraiser who happens to be
haemophobic; and the Savages, led by Tommy, an ex-tobacco smuggler who
himself as a pacifist – is a bloody revenge tragedy that
finally answers, after
six intense and frenetic hours, the question of just how much blood
will spill to avenge those they love.
DS: Savage Night takes its title from Jim
Thompson. Should crime
fiction fans see this as a straight ahead tribute?
blithe-psycho noir, but any similarities end there. All my novels
(or variations of titles) from mid-twentieth century crime paperback
Two-Way Split was originally Three-Way Split by Gil Brewer; Kiss Her Goodbye was Wade Miller; Hard Man was David Karp; and of course Savage Night was by Jim Thompson.
DS: Is this
because you can't come up with any titles of your own?
AG: Funnily enough I’m pretty good at
coming up with titles for other
people. But I suck when it comes to my own books, usually because I
clue what they’re about before I start writing. I wrote a
novella, Kill Clock, which is my
own title. The
next novel, Slammer, is also my
In both cases, I knew what I was going to write about before I started.
usually the working draft of one of my books (any book) is Blithe Psychopaths.
you agree that the
book’s narrative structure owes more to filmmakers such as
Tarantino than to
your literary influences? Can we expect you to experiment more with
structure in the future?
AG: I’m not sure that
I’ve ever been
particularly influenced by novelists. My main influences are probably
theatre and cinema. I read a heap of plays when I was a teenager and
particular passions for Jacobean drama and the Absurdists, which is
possibly where the interest in dramatising scenes of violence and
But it’s hard to know what’s influential. I think
you can see traces of David
Goodis’s influence in my first novel. The others, I
can’t say. I’ve been
reading a lot of Ted Lewis recently and I’d have said he was
influential if it
weren’t for the fact that most of my books were written
before I’d read him.
The structure is a decidedly cinematic one, as you say. Hard
Man was too, but in a different way. Movies, undoubtedly,
had a large impact on me, but probably more from learning to write
than from watching the actual films.
DS: The book
generate equal sympathy for the two violent families out to get revenge
other, and never judges either of them. Is this a fair summary, and why
write it in this way?
AG: Usually a novel has a
protagonist and an antagonist, a good guy and a bad guy, a hero and a
however you want to put it. I broke with that tradition with my first
where there’s no clear protagonist. If you have two
characters (or more) with
opposing/conflicting goals, I don’t see why you
shouldn’t do your best as an
author to put both sides of the argument across. So that was the idea
with Savage Night. It morphed into
a little different, more of an ensemble piece.But you’re absolutely right to say I
don’t try to suggest favouring one
family over the other. They are who they are and it’s
entirely up to the reader
to respond as they see fit.
Just to pick up on the sympathy aspect. It’s hard to
sympathise with most of
the characters I write.For
Effie and Martin are introduced chopping up a corpse. Since not many of
what that’s like, never having done it, we can’t
sympathise. So I always stress
empathy over sympathy. I try to put the reader in the
character’s head, so that
the reader experiences what the narrator experiences and therefore
comes more easily. And I try to do that with every character who takes
narration. I think I’ve been pretty consistent about that
over the course of my
writing. That’s also why emotions and sensory experiences are
so important – we
may not know what it’s like to chop up a body, but
we’ve all experienced
disgust, fear, horror, the smell of blood, and so on.
DS: Did the
novel evolve according to the demands of the story as you
AG: The first thing I wrote was the Effie and Martin
section. Once I had
about 10,000 words, I started to ask myself what on earth was going on,
frankly, I had no idea. All I knew was that there was this couple
bodies and that someone was watching them. I was intrigued, and it
me that readers might be too. So when I started trying to find the
bore in mind that it’d be good to allow readers to find the
story too. Hence
the in media res style opening and
the ensuing fragmented narrative.
DS: Do you
sometimes deliberately come up with characters who are
difficult to empathise with?
AG: I would hate to think I write characters who are
empathise with. Difficult to sympathise with, sure, because the reader
been there and done it. But I trust in the imagination of the reader to
to place themselves in a position where empathy isn’t too
much of a struggle.
As for the type of characters I write about, I just try to write about
of people who fascinate me in the hope that they fascinate readers too.
DS: Do you
feel like you are
building up a consistent body of work, thematically?
AG: I don’t think much
I think exhaustively about story, characters, scenes, details,
sensory experiences, as I just mentioned. But themes arise out of
else and I let them take care of themselves.
You’ve said in the past
you don’t feel the need for fiction writers to impart any
morality or push any
messages in their work. Why do you think that?
AG: I try to keep myself out of my
writing as much as possible. I like to let my characters do the
they frequently have different opinions from me (and from one another).
Authorial intrusion is a bugbear of mine, and imparting morality or
messages smacks of it to me. I can’t read anything
that’s even slightly preachy
– I become disengaged from the story when I think I hear the
author trying to
tell me something.
Some people would claim that all texts contain a moral message. If the
gets away with murder, for instance, that may be seen by some to be
whereas others would see it as a reasonable story choice, given that
exactly unheard of in the real world. Certainly the choices I make as a
reflect how best to serve the story, not how best to make a moral point
a message across. If I start to prioritise the latter (although exactly
message it might be that anybody would want to hear from me, I
then the story will most likely suffer.
That’s not to say that you can’t read messages into
what I write. ‘Violence hurts’,
for instance, might be a recurring ‘message’. But
earth-shattering. ‘Morality is complex’, might be
another. Again, the
significance of a message so banal is debatable.
But I do have an idea for a satirical novel (not a crime novel)
about the premise. The message won’t get in the way of the
story, because the
story is the message. And there won’t be any authorial
intrusion because the
protagonist will be the author. So never say never. I might even write
wouldn't it be possible to write a crime novel in that way, in
which the story is the message and you can avoid authorial intrusion?
it only when an author writes badly that they intrude?
AG: In my own writing thus far I’m more
interested in story than
message. I try to write with the focus on story and if readers see a
the story, hopefully that’s a byproduct of the story.
I’m sure it’s possible to
write a crime novel where the story is the message, but when that
tend to think of it as story rather than message. Maybe we’re
semantics here. I would agree that it’s bad writing when an
intrudes, but others would disagree strongly. A lot of political
considered pretty good, but I’d rather read Caldwell over
that, the themes
of understanding and forgiveness seem to run through your work. Is this
deliberate? Do you think about Christian concepts of forgiveness when
AG: I hope I write about people in
all their many guises. Some people are understanding and forgiving,
aren’t. Andy Park, for instance, can hardly be said to be
forgiving, unlike Joe
Hope (Kiss Her Goodbye), say.
I’m not exactly sure what you mean about Christian concepts
of forgiveness, but
I suspect if I’d consciously thought about it and wanted to
introduce such a
thing into Savage Night,
included a communion scene, the drinking of the ‘blood of
pertinent to the book. But, unfortunately, that never crossed my mind.
the characters are religious, either, come to think of it, so maybe
DS: I meant
that, to me, your work tends to stimulate
understanding and forgiveness in your readers for all your characters.
Christian concepts of forgiveness, I mean that your work, whether
or not, challenges readers to remember that only those without sin cast
first stone; or that it's more important to empathise than to judge
do bad things. How do you respond to that?
AG: Very kind
of you to say so, Damien, but I can assure you not everyone
feels that way. Ideally, I’d like readers to get to the end
of Savage Night and feel a sense of
I’m not sure about forgiveness and understanding. Maybe
that’s how some readers
might see things, but if you think about the misery and punishment
inflicted on these characters as their author, I don’t think
you could say I
was particularly forgiving. But maybe it’s because
I’m tough that readers can
feel pity. The relationships between author, characters and reader are
three-book deal with
Polygon was said to be the largest in that publisher’s
history at the time.
What pressure did that put on you? Do you think your writing ever
suffered as a
AG: I’m a terrible judge
of my own
writing. The only novel I’ve written since that deal was Savage Night (Hard
was already written), and I’m quite fond of it, so I
don’t see my writing as
having suffered. Others may disagree, of course. As for pressure:
I’m not a fan
of pressure. Some people need it, others don’t. And I really
don’t. I turn
white, and sweat, and can’t think. Which isn’t very
Writing a book that you know is going to be published is a little odd,
Maybe it’s something you get used to over time, but
I’m accustomed to writing
novels on spec in the hope but not expectation that they might be good
DS: You have
won, or been
nominated for, several awards. How seriously do you take awards, and
important do you think they can be to new writers?
AG: Getting shortlisted is a
tremendous boost, and writers all benefit from the lift. Anything
positive is a
godsend. I’ve been lucky enough to win two and the
feeling’s pretty special. As
to their importance – I think that depends on various
factors. For instance,
when Kiss Her Goodbye got nominated
for an Edgar, I was at the end of a contract and Hard
Man was written. I’d been offered a two-book deal a
two before the nominations were announced, but that changed virtually
to a three-book deal, and for quite a bit more money. An ideal
not one you can plan for.
DS: A German
edition of Kiss Her Goodbye
launches this Easter.
An Italian version of Two Way Split
has already been published. How did these deals come about? How
foreign publishing deals to an author’s reputation?
AG: The Italian deal for Two-Way Split was signed before I even
had a UK publisher.
as simple as Einaudi approaching me and asking if they could publish
They went on to buy another three books. Kiss
Her Goodbye is being published by Rotbuch Verlag, who have
Case Crime in Germany, and
just bought three more of my books. I’ve also sold books to Spain, Finland and France. So the
rights deals are trickling in nicely. I’m not sure how
deals are to an author’s reputation, but it can make a big
difference to an
author’s income – or in terms of advances on deals
that include translation rights.
DS: What can
you tell us
about your next book?
AG: It’s a prison novel
called Slammer, written from the
a young prison officer, Nick Glass, who’s having a bad time,
both at work and
at home. It’s a proper noir, exploring the territory
somewhere between Two-Way Split and
Savage Night. And it’s
unusual in being the first novel of mine to
be published that’s told entirely by one character.
DS: That is
a departure for you. Why have you limited yourself to a
single protagonist this time?
stories require different approaches. Slammer
needs to have a
single voice telling the story because ... well, I don't want to give
anything away. Also, it's good to take a break from having half-a-dozen
voices buzzing in my head.
deal ends later this year. Are there any more deals in the pipeline?
most likely won’t be out till next year. I need to finish
it before I start contemplating another deal. So at the moment, no,
You’re a literary agent
as well as an author. How do you juggle the two to make time for the
And do you manage to have a social life?
AG: I don’t know many
have a social life. Most have day jobs and write in the evenings and
I’m one of the lucky ones, in that I don’t have a
day job. At one point I was
working in a bookshop, editing, agenting and writing. Now I’m
just agenting and
writing, and the agenting is part-time. So I feel like I have quite a
time. Also, bear in mind that at my level, the time demands on the
aren’t that excessive. It’s not as if I’m
on national tours or what have you.
Writing a book a year doesn’t take up that much time. And
agenting work is highly flexible. It’s a pretty good
DS: As both
a rising star of
crime fiction and a literary agent, what advice can you give to other
both on writing and on getting published?
AG: Learn the craft. Network. Think
about story, because good writing isn’t enough.
Don’t even think about giving
up until you’ve received at least 1000 rejections. If
you’re short of time,
stop watching TV and going to the pub. Write short stories (good
potential publishing credits).
if Britain was
on fire and you only had time to save one other native crime writer,
it be and why?
AG: Well, given that it was
undoubtedly me who started the fire in a bold bid to get rid of the
competition, I wouldn’t be saving anyone. I’d be
standing at a safe distance
shouting, “Burn, ya native bastards, burn,” and
hurling petrol cans into the
flames. Unfortunately, most crime writers are instinctive survivors, so
suspect they’d all escape unharmed, while I’d end
up sloshing petrol all over
myself and setting myself alight.
crime fiction and non-fiction articles have appeared in Pulp Pusher,
Originals and Spinetingler Magazine. Drop him a line at: firstname.lastname@example.org
SAVAGE NIGHT is published by Polygon An Imprint
of Birlinn Limited (1